From director David Sandberg, whose feature filmography consists solely of horror movies (“Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation”), comes an unlikely bundle of superhero joy. "Shazam!" marks a clear change of tone for the D.C. Extended Universe (DCEU), which came into existence with gritty, colorless films like Zack Snyder’s “Batman V. Superman.” With a charismatic lead actor in Zachary Levi, a springy, lighthearted tone, and a solid emotional arc, this film is exactly what the DCEU needs.
The story unfolds in Philadelphia, centering on the experiences of foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel) as he settles into his 24th foster home. He befriends his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a physically disabled superhero fan, who is frequently singled out and bullied at school. In one instance, Billy stands up for Freddy, but tries to escape when he gets outnumbered, jumping on a train: Here, his journey takes a sudden turn towards the supernatural. The train transports Billy to a prehistoric lair where he is confronted by the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who selects Billy as his champion to protect the world against the demons called the "Seven Deadly Sins.” Billy takes up the wizard's mantle by saying "Shazam!" and is magically transformed into an adult superhero, Shazam, played by Levi.
The premise behind Shazam, his appearance, and powers stay relatively faithful to the DC comics from which he originates: He shoots lightning bolts from his fingers, possesses superhuman strength, and wields the power of flight. Ironically, DC initially named "Shazam" as “Captain Marvel,” a name that Marvel eventually gave to an entirely different character — Captain Marvel — who just last month just last month made her feature film debut.
“Shazam!” is at its best when it focuses on Billy's journey as he learns to control his superhero alter-ego. This phase in the film is played for multiple laughs: Some memorable scenes include a face-off in a convenience store between Shazam and armed robbers and the montages where Freddy helps Billy test his newfound abilities. After a while, though, some of the comedic moments begin to feel formulaic. In some instances, one could guess exactly what happens next from the way earlier jokes were set up. However, these predictable moments are few and far between, and they don't take much away from the utter hilarity of Levi's performance. While the concept of playing a 14-year-old trapped in a superhero body sounds silly, Levi really pulls it off. "Shazam!" soars when it does because of Levi's genuine energy: He bounces with excitement when he discovers new powers, is awestruck when he defies the odds, and otherwise brings a boyish charm to the role.
Mark Strong plays the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Silvana, but his serious character feels out of place in a film that’s intrinsically self-aware of what it’s trying to be — a fast-paced superhero comedy. A one-note, off-the-assembly-line style villain, Silvana isn't much to write home about. Aside from partaking in one particularly gory scene, he doesn't comes across as particularly fearsome either. Sandberg establishes his paper-thin backstory early on in the film, making his motivations seem flimsy and inconsequential. In result, moments he has on screen drag the film's pace far more than they provide tension in the plot.
Moreover, some visual effects don't look as polished as one might expect from a tentpole superhero film. In particular, some of Silvana’s sidekicks look like poorly rendered adaptations of "Zuul" from “Ghostbusters.” But for the most part, these computer graphics aren't too distracting; when Levi is flying high above the city, cracking jokes, shooting lightning bolts, and taking the audience on a joyous ride, it's easy to forgive shortcomings in the visual department.
“Shazam!” works so well because of the way its emotional core can stand on its own. The overarching theme of the film is the search for belonging: Billy has been searching for that feeling ever since he was separated from his mom at a carnival when he was little, Freddy is alienated by his classmates at school, and even Silvana is driven to some extent by this need for belonging. The emotional payoffs build off these character arcs and work well, in part due to how effectively the foster family has been cast: The parents (played by Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans) are warm and comforting and the other foster children are cheerful (if slightly forgettable) additions. With its solid narrative structure, "Shazam!" rejuvenates the magic and wonder in the often cliched superhero genre.